Internet television is going interactive, with stories where users hold the controls

LOS ANGELES: Imagine watching a film where you get to make choices for the characters, shape the narrative and decide the ending. The universe of user-controlled, choose-your-own-adventure stories is the new frontier that streaming platforms are eyeing and experimenting with.
Viewers recently got a taste of the genre with the interactive film Bandersnatch on Netflix. Spurred by its viral success, the company announced two new shows last month — a live-action series titled You vs Wild where one can join and direct the actions of survival expert Bear Grylls as he climbs mountains and enters jungles, and an animated series Battle Kitty, where kids will get to navigate adventures and help the kitten defeat monsters in a futuristic-medieval world. Another kids’ interactive animated series in the making is about a cat and a dog whose human has gone missing. Viewers will be able to choose between the cat and dog as they follow their adventures.
All three shows are a part of Netflix’s growing catalogue of interactive content. And there may be more to come. Speaking at the annual Lab Days, a media event in Los Angeles, the company’s vice president of content, Todd Yellin informed: “We’re thinking about this now more broadly. Maybe a romantic title where you get to choose the guy she goes out with. Horror titles… Should you walk through that door or dive out that window? We’re going to try a bunch of interactive titles now, and see how it plays out because we want to keep on innovating in the storytelling universe.”
Long before Bandersnatch became a viral success, the company’s first interactive experiments began with a quartet of children’s titles like Puss in Book where kids got to pick if Puss should fight a tree or a god. The branching narrative wooed kids and pushed Netflix to go ahead with an adult interactive adventure. “Who is the most receptive audience to try new things? Kids. They don’t have established rules. You put something in front of a kid, they assume that’s the way the world is supposed to be. It’s something we really wanted them to try because if it wasn’t going to work with kids, there was no way it would work with grownups,” explained Todd Yellin.
After Bandersnatch exploded not just in the UK and US, but in India, South Africa, Spain, Germany and South Korea, Netflix is ready to thrust interactive entertainment further into the mainstream.
What looked like a clever gimmick with Bandersnatch’s videogame-like format may have ushered in the next phase in the art of nonlinear television and the making of the interactive show became as much a filmmaking process as a software development.
At first it was about making simple choices when writer Charlie Brooker began plotting the story on a whiteboard. Should Stefan, the main character, eat frosties or sugar puffs for breakfast? Soon the choices became more intense and Brooker took to a videogame programming language called Twine to capture his interactive fiction. As the story grew headier with each plot point becoming consequential – should the teenage video game whiz take up the job at a gaming company? Should he throw tea over his computer or shout at his dad? Should he bury a body or chop it up? – the tech team at Netflix’s headquarters got to work at inventing brand new tools that could combine technology, innovation, design and storytelling.
They named this all-new production software ‘Branch Manager’. Dave Schlafman, design manager of the interactive experiences team, explains, “This software put the creative tools in the hands of writers, editors and producers so that they can focus on the storytelling. Branch Manager does three things – enables creators to design a flow that can handle complex logic; throughout production, they can add different types of content, outline text and scripts; and finally, preview interactive versions of their project as early as the outline phase.”
The need for creative flexibility also extended to their coding teams. “Bandersnatch has SM audio video encodes that support multiple devices and experiences,” explained Nina Kelly, animation project manager at Netflix.
Given the “lean forward” alternative this format offers as opposed to the traditional style of leaning back on the couch with the remote down, Yellin admits: “We don’t know how often we should have these choice points. So we’re going to work on the cadence, the best questions to ask and how much agency they want to have so that the audience really wants to get involved.”
Interactive content is presently in the evaluation stage, but the streaming company’s goal is to get it to as many subscribers around the world as possible. “When we first launched, it was only on iOS devices and TV. As of today, we support web, iOS, TV, media players and most game consoles as well. We’re trying to hit as many devices as possible,” says Schlafman.
While Netflix is already in the lead in the live-action interactive space, other streamers are likely to play catch up soon. Amazon drew eyeballs two years ago when they promoted their series ‘The Grand Tour’ with an interactive board game in which viewers could blow up cars. India got its first interactive trailer last year. In the Guneet Monga-produced Monsoon Shootout, makers broke away from the usual promo and offered audiences a clip and a choice to pull the trigger on something never tried before in Bollywood.
(The writer was in Los Angeles on the invitation of Netflix)
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